Tag Archives: poetry

The courting of poems

Everyone who writes will have their own process, or more than one way of bringing words together. For some it’s all about jotting down notes, mapping out ideas, sketching, doodling, trying things and putting together the bits that work. It’s rare that a good piece of writing comes together fully formed and straight onto the page, even those of us who don’t do much development writing expect to have to edit and tidy up whatever emerged in the rush of inspiration.

For me, a poem usually begins with a seed idea. That can come from absolutely anywhere, so of course every single day is full of hundreds of things that might be poems. There’s an unconscious selection process that makes me latch onto some things and not others. A sense of possibility, of something I can follow and develop is usually part of this, and I notice it happening even though I’m not in deliberate control of it.

Once I’ve got that seed idea, I’ll hold it for as long as it takes. Usually a few days, but sometimes longer – months, in a recent case. I’ll think about the idea I’ve got, feel my way around it, see what it connects with. I won’t pick up a pen and risk catching it on paper before it is ready, and I’ve learned that it pays not to rush. I’ll play with word arrangements in my head, testing turns of phrase against the idea.

For example, I recently posted a poem called ‘The Use of Cauldrons’. It was a response to the OBOD work I did with Taliesin more than a decade ago, and to Lorna Smithers’ The Broken Cauldron, which I read last year, so I’d been gestating unconsciously for a long time. I simply woke up with a sense of how to write about cauldrons. It then took several days of just letting that wash around in my brain, and then I was able to sit down and write a decent first draft fairly quickly. I left it alone for a couple of days and then tidied it up. A second poem written recently was sparked back in the winter, I knew what I wanted to do but not how to do it. Again, there were unconscious processes, and then an invitation to read locally, and things fell into place.

For me, the process of creating a poem begins long before pen meets paper. I can’t manufacture those little seeds of inspiration that stand out, and have the potential to become something. They are a consequence of richness in my life – that can come from time spent outside, time with friends, time being inspired by other people’s creativity and anything else with that kind of depth and intensity. If I don’t deliberately make room for that kind of experience, then there won’t be the ‘ping’ moments that give me something to write about.

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How to read poetry

Poetry, especially when offered in the first person, can seem profoundly intimate. I think it’s the most intense form of word expression available if you choose to use it that way. That intensity can help fuel the impression that the poetry is an exposing of self.

I suspect the whole business is further complicated by what we might end up reading and hearing – professional contemporary poetry is rare. The industry believes that people no longer buy poetry. As a consequence, what any of us are most likely to encounter at slams or online or in poetry groups, is people who do very much seem to be writing from the heart. Poetry as catharsis, as healing process, cheaper than therapy.

When I posted ‘my facebookfriend has unfriended me’ a bit back, there were sounds of condolence, ‘sorry you’ve had this experience’. There wasn’t a specific experience underlying it, and the emotional energy came from a different set of recent experiences that had annoyed me, but which I couldn’t write about in a way I found useful or amusing. Alchemical transformations in the writing process turn original experience into something that makes sense.

The ‘I’ of the poet can be as much a device as a story author speaking in first person. The ‘voice’ of a poet can be as much a construction as any other form of art. How much do we read the poet in the poem? I know I do it, encountering the poetry of friends, sometimes knowing about some bits they’ve drawn from experience, inferring something of the heart and soul where perhaps what I’ve seen is craft and inspiration.

A poem can be true, without being any kind of literal truth.

A poet can be honest and authentic, without revealing anything of their own story.

But to what extent do we, as readers and audience, need to feel that the poet is indeed hefting up a bit of their heart, or putting a slice of their soul in front of us?


A poem about poets

The Poets have Gone Out

 

The Poets have gone to the hills

Free from domestic nuisance and noise

They can speak of deeper, manly things:

Literature, philosophy, their own most recent work.

 

Later, in letters they will reflect on

Each other’s excellent, worthwhile thoughts.

Later again, academics will delve,

Ponder these exchanges, write papers on

The insights, teach students, build careers.

 

All the while, the wives of The Poets

Feed mouths, clean, mend, sew and tend.

Darn the socks of Poets

Make the breakfast of Poets

Raise the offspring of Poets

 

No record remaining of what they say

Once The Poets have gone out for the day.

 

(I was thinking very much about Victorian and early twentieth century writers when I wrote this. And a line from T.S. Eliot’s literary criticism that haunts me about how poetry should be dry, hard and manly, and Robert Graves’ obsession with the idea that men are poets and women are to embody the Goddess and be muses, and an array of other such annoyances in that vein.)


Poem: Encounter

Eye contact.

Shy cautious checking

Each other out.

Checking for danger,

For interest.

We’re very still.

I offer; you gaze.

When you move

It is sudden.

Fluttering, hovering close.

I do not breathe.

You do not stay.

We try again,

The same dance.

I offer, you assess.

This time you move in

Bold, certain, landing.

Into my waiting hand.

Onto my skin.

Eye contact.

Still cautious, checking,

Your feet so small,

Your tiny weight,

A miracle on my fingers.

I do not breathe,

And when you

Have taken grain enough,

You fly away.


Poetic truth

What do we use instead of metaphors, to talk about things more fully, but without getting caught in language that can be used against us? I get into the most interesting conversations, and the first fruits of that exchange are there to be read at Celtic Earth Spirit.

We know that police have used anti-terrorist laws to monitor law abiding Green activists and politicians. We know there are lists. We know that standing up for the survival of the planet and the species is considered radical and dangerous. Which when you stop and think about it, is weird. Where this is going and how seriously planet-protectors are threatened by laws designed to stop terrorists, is anyone’s guess. But, however this goes, new approaches to language may help us.

Language is a currency, and like any other currency, it can be devalued. Miss-use and over-use can take the power out of words. When corporations take your words to use in marketing campaigns, they take power as well. ‘Community’ is something politicians like to say when they mean to sound inclusive.

Modern language is increasingly about the pulling together of words. Chillax. Brexit. Remoaner. It’s sloppy, soundbite thinking designed to reduce and diminish. Careless misrepresenting of other people’s words has become a staple of fake news. I don’t think there’s one answer to this – not least because a multiplicity of individual answers is always the better way to go. Treating language with love would be a good part of the mix.

So let’s speak in story and metaphor, in poetry and allusion. Let’s play with the breadth and depth of languages, old and news to find words that have not been tarnished with poor usage. Let’s find and use heart words, soul words, the language of human in the landscape. No more trite little phrases designed to silence dissent. No more petty point scoring where winning trumps truth as a priority. With wit and wordplay, pun and poem, let’s find better ways of communicating with each other.

After all, the trolls only come out to feed when they can hear the trip-trapping across the bridges, and we do not have to trip or trap, we can make quieter bridges that do not alert the things that like to hide underneath and sabotage.


Accessible Poetry

I don’t know the figures, but it’s pretty obvious that far more people don’t read poetry by choice, than do read it. People obliged to read it for school can’t be counted in this. By and large, the people writing poetry are people who read poetry. After all, no one does poetry for the fame and glamour, the only realistic motivations involve love or catharsis, or both. Often (but not always) people who write poetry seem to assume that they are writing only for the small number of people who habitually read poetry, and this tends to make poetry less accessible.

I read a collection recently that had a lot of classical references in it. Now, it’s one thing if you’re a Hellenic Pagan writing about Greek Gods for fellow Pagans – this is not about you! Pagans aside, access to ‘classics’ tends to come with a certain kind of education – grammar school, or private. Anyone under forty will probably not have studied Latin at state school. Anyone who went to a secondary modern, or even a regular comprehensive won’t have done much on classical writing. There is a definite class aspect to this, and as most of us are working class, most of us are excluded from any poetry that assumes the reader has had a certain kind of education. I know people whose poetic education was about verse – rhyme and beat, which means everything of the twentieth century ‘classics’ is unfamiliar to them.

Yes, we can self-educate and many of us do. Yes, we can read around, and read widely, and as voraciously as the local library and time will allow. But, if you read alone and for the love of it, you probably won’t find your way to all the literary poets other poets may be inclined to reference. You may well be totally put off long before that happens.

Now, if your poetry includes waves to ancient Rome, or T.S. Eliot, but makes perfect sense to someone who doesn’t know about those things, you’re golden. Those who know can enjoy it, those who don’t know can enjoy it and you may even help someone find their way into other things they hadn’t read before. However, if the sense of the poem depends on knowing who Eurydice was, or being able to recognise what God said to Noah without the context, or something of that ilk, it becomes a locked box for which many readers will never have the keys, and that’s just annoying.

When a poem assumes knowledge the reader does not have, the poet is saying ‘this is not for you.’ I don’t think poetry should be a largely inaccessible thing written by and for a particular kind of educated elite. I think poetry should be for everyone.


Poetry: The Dirty Britons

When did my people stop being indigenous?

Before enclosure stole their commons

And industry stole the shape of their days.

Before peasant labour in feudal field strips.

Perhaps before Vikings, Romans, Celts,

My ancestors lived in knowing harmony

And were people of this land.

 

Before memory. Before history.

 

I walk myself into this land.

I walk this land into me.

Step by step, season to season,

Making body knowledge.

I am not my ancestors,

Cannot channel what they knew

But all traditions start somewhere.

I teach my son what I can of presence.

Generations hence we might find

What it is to be English indigenous

On English ground, despite the crushing,

Severing, looking the wrong way and

Getting excited about the wrong things

History of conventional Englishness.

Even we might yet relearn soil songs

Become genuine people of the earth


What is poetry?

Quite some time ago, I was asked for an explanation as to what poetry is, from a man who had been taught at school that poetry means rhythm and rhyme. Being a big fan of free verse, I knew that couldn’t be it, but it’s a hard question to answer. I know when I’ve encountered it (and I feel much the same way about Druidry!) but that’s not a useful thing to offer a person. A long car journey with writer, publisher and creative writing teacher Anthony Nanson gave me chance to kick the question about and take advantage of his much cleverer mind.

Anthony suggested that rhyme and meter give you verse, but not necessarily poetry. It’s possible to say bland, empty, dull and tedious things with verse, after all.

I can see a little dog

Picking up a mouldy log

Running with it to a bog

Took its photo for my blog…

Poetry is more than this. If something is poetic, it is more than the sum of its parts. Something in the writing will create possibilities, moods, impressions that do more than the individual words were capable of.

“anyone lived in a pretty how town” – a bit of ee cummings, which I think makes the point. Everyday words, but not an everyday effect.There’s space in poetry where the reader/audience can bring something for themselves – in fact often must make this engagement for the writing to make full sense to them. The need to find your own meaning, to make something out of the juxtapositions and impressions can be very much part of the poetic experience.At a poetry book launch of Jay Ramsay’s several years ago, Jay said that poetry calls upon different parts of the brain to prose. It requires us to think differently to step out of our normal relationship with the world. It’s hard to pin this down as an experience – but that is part of what makes it itself. We are touched and changed in ways that are uniquely personal to each of us. Something gets in. Something is not the same.Granted, a beautiful piece of prose can have that effect to, but if it does, we tend to call the writing ‘poetic’ anyway.The conclusion I’ve come to, is that poetry is a little bit of enchantment.


My Inconvenient Truth

I am a rock in the stream.

I choose to be still,

Let water wash over me,

Flow around me,

Break in waves against

My obstinate self.

Your flood will not

Change what I am.

Tumble me in the current,

I am still a rock in the stream.

Wash me up, discard me,

I am the rock

That was in the stream.

I am myself.

Erode me over years

Into crumbs of limestone,

In my fragments

I am still the rock from the stream.

My form is not my whole self,

I have a history of being,

Waves cannot break that.

Unmake me, send ice fingers

To prise me open

Bring bigger rocks to shatter me.

I have still been myself

And my ripples will continue

Long after my breaking.

I am the rock in the stream.

Truth in my stillness,

Waiting for the flood to pass.


The Poet’s Journey

You sit all night upon a mountain top

To become either mad, or a poet,

But return to daily life much the same,

Hungry, and confused, but trying to speak

Of the night and the mountain and your soul.

You steadfastly research crazy mountains

A place for blows or visions is required,

A place of mystical transformation.

You sit all night on a new mountain top,

Come back speaking of the star jewelled sky,

Space between galaxies, eternity,

But the words are always inadequate.

You flirt with cliché and depression

In rhyming couplets you learn to despise.

Neither a poet, nor properly mad,

All you can do is keep climbing mountains,

And come back without the words to explain,

To people who have never mountain sat,

Whose eyes glaze over at your description.

You seek the company of poets,

Of lunatics bent on chasing the moon,

Deranged idealists and small children

Who want to hear all about your journey,

And for all your relentless sanity

Declare you to be one of their odd tribe.

Each night you all sit on mountain tops

Dreaming the way to distant pinnacles

Until your returning empty handed

Becomes a different kind of meaning.